SIBELIUS: Pelleas and Melisande, Op. 46 (Incidental music Suite). Cassazione, Op. 6. Presto for strings (1890). Suite mignonne, Op. 98a. Suite champÍtre, Op. 98b.  Suite caráctÈristique, Op. 100.
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Tuomas Ollila, cond.

Ondine ODE 952 [F] [DDD]  TT: 55:49

Here's a handy collection of one major score by Sibelius—the complete concert suite of incidental music for a 1905 production of Maeterlinck's PellÈas et MÈlisande, superior certainly to FaurÈ's lavender sachet if not to Debussy's opera—plus two neglected but strong early pieces, and three innocuous little suites from 1921, the midpoint in a barren period between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.

The Tapiola Sinfonietta is a crack chamber orchestra, and Tuomas Ollila (yet another alumnus of Jorma Panula's conducting classes in the Sibelius Academy at Helsinki) is an authoritative leader, albeit a measure short of the imagination, subtlety, and sheer genius Sir Thomas Beecham brought to eight of the Pelleas suite's nine movements on an EMI CD with the Royal Philharmonic, which bloody well ought to be reissued as a budget treasure. At a later date on DG, Karajan conducted some if not all of the movements with uncommon tenderness, in spite of beefed-up Berlin Phil sonority.

The 10-minute Cassazione, despite its low opus number (just two after the string quartet, from which Sibelius extracted the Presto on this disc circa 1894), is a companion piece of the Violin Concerto, first version, and his Pelleas music. It is uncommonly vivid, indeed an impassioned piece that deserves resuscitation as a concert opener. Ollila does it to a turn; likewise the Presto. He handles the three Suites (all together they last just 16 minutes) with humor where appropriate, impressive gentleness in the slow movements, and Èlan in the fast movements—certainly superior to William Boughton on Nimbus, and I would guess to Neeme J”rvi in his nearly-complete Sibelius overview on BIS, based on what I know and find callow in the earlier volumes of his enterprise. (Callow, let me explain, in the sense that J”rvi's music-making strikes me by and large as reflexively generic, as if he learned new scores on short plane hops between cities where they were recorded instanter—a characteristic James Levine shared for at least two decades, before he began to slow down in his 50s.)

Ondine's recording is a 24-bit prize that has decided me (if I haven't maxed my credit cards with prescription medicines for the past nine months) to invest in an HDCD deck, probably a Rotel, given the excellence of two of their products during the past dozen years. Tapiola Hall may be highly reverberant, but nothing is muddy, and location is spot-on; high marks for producer Seppo Sirila and engineer Enno M”emets.

Whatever your decision (the list for Ondine is a pricey $16.99), don't deny yourself the glory of the opening movement, "At the Gate," in the Pelleas Suite; it's in my will to be played should anyone choose to give me a funeral, whenever.

R.D. (July 2000)